Friday, 8 June 2012

Ilomantsi: poetic Karelia

Traditional Karelian embroidery
I arrive at Ilomantsi, Northern Karelia, with solitary forest trails on my mind but have to be patient; the only bus from Ilomantsi village to the tiny Möhkö village won't leave for some hours. However, this is far from disappointing because it gives me time for a short walk in Ilomantsi village itself. A bit of culture before entering the woods.

The main street of Ilomantsi is Kalevalantie, named after the Finnish national epic Kalevala. Quite a few of the poems of the epic were collected from this area (besides other regions in Karelia) by Elias Lönnrot who toured Karelia in early 19th century to find singers who still remembered the ancient poems and verses.
I turn from Kalevalantie to Kauppatie, past the Doll and teddy bear house (Nukke- ja nalletalo) and see a hand-made sign pointing to Katri Vala Kulttuurikeskus, the yellow wooden building which used to be a school. Right next to it there is Murginapirtti which serves lunch on weekdays.

The cultural centre is not yet open when I arrive there but despite that I get a friendly welcome and a brief guided tour - thanks!

Katri Vala (1901-1944) was a writer, poet and teacher and one of the first poets in Finland who wrote free verse. She lived in Ilomantsi for some years both during her childhood and in 1925-29. The exhibitions in the Katri Vala Cultural Centre are in Finnish language only so it may be easier to focus on the photography and art exhibitions than on learning about Katri's life and her poems if you don't read Finnish.
Summer Night
However, some of the artwork that is related to Katri Vala's poem's may open more easily: the hall upstairs features hand woven Poetry rugs by Pauli Hiltunen. Each of them was inspired and tells a story of a poem by Katri. Even without knowing the language you can try to guess what the story is about - the summer, the spring...
Kauko Jeskanen's woodwork, each piece carved from a single block of wood only, are totally amazing. The photography exhibitions include U. Pekka Kinnunen's photos of brown bears and another one displays the local sports club's history.
I head back towards the village centre surrounded by fantastic greenness. The wooden gate at Piirolan piha handicrafts centre features two Karelian cuckoos. A walk of less than 2 km takes me to Parppeinvaara hill, right after the sports ground; there is a shortcut with wooden steps leading to the top of the beautiful hill.
At the forefront of Parppeinvaara open hilltop is the restaurant Parppeinpirtti, built in traditional Karelian style. There is Karelian buffet with traditional style food available daily in the summertime and I look forward to sampling some of that, even though I feel it is a bit overpriced (20 euros - I can only manage one plateful anyway!) but the handmade Karelian pasties are simply irresistible. ... However, I have to wait until the private function is over.
I take off my backpack and head for Mesikkä, a museum featuring a very good exhibition on local nature, especially the animal kingdom. The ticket covers entry to all musem buildings in Parppeinvaara. The Kalevala spirit is present in the exhibition. According to the first poem in Kalevala, sotka (or telkkä), Common Goldeneye laid eggs on Ilmatar's (Virgin of the Air) knee and when the eggs fell down and broke, they eventually gave birth to this world, the stars, the skies, everything.
I really enjoy the relaxing sound world of the exhibition that takes you to the depths of nature. Looking at the wolf, I start thinking about the trail - Susitaival = Wolf's Trail ahead of me. I doubt I will meet a wolf or even the King of the Forest, a bear, on the way. In this part of the world, they usually run away when sniffing or hearing people approach, and you don't have to worry about a bear attacking your food during the night.
The next building, Runonlaulajan Pirtti, is a great example of a traditional Karelian log house; this one dates to 1964. The young woman who greets me at the door is wearing a feresi, a somewhat modernised version of traditional women's dress in Karelia. I check out an exhibition on orthodox church tradition after which she surprises me with some live music! The guide takes out her kantele, a very traditional instrument that is present also in Kalevala, and starts singing and playing a wonderful lullaby. I sit down on the floor and just enjoy the soothing music. A bard! An orthodox icon is guarding the room in the corner. Soon she plays a faster song and it sounds like there are two instruments playing at the same time. This is fantastic, and a great lesson in kantele. Thank you so much for the concert!
The other buildings in the museum area include old grey log buildings that were used as store rooms. They have been transferred here from other villages. Two of them are dedicated to a famous local bard Mateli Kuivalatar who contributed a lot of the poems or songs of Kalevala. Rukapirtti tells about WW2 history and includes exquisite hand-made woodwork by soldiers, a lot of which was made during the Continuation War, especially in 1942-43.
Kaikkien Pyhien tsasouna (1980) - dedicated to All Saints - is a tiny orthodox church which was originally made for a film. It is still used by the local orthodox community.
The door to the church is open. I light a candle for my journey and glance at the Bible next to the altar. The first words that I see are (free translation from Finnish): "Even now it is possible to turn back". As if I wasn't meant to take the hike in the woods!
The museum tour done, after a good lunch and with a packet of fresh Karelian pasties in my backpack, I walk downhill from Parppeinvaara, through kujaset, a path surrounded by traditional fencing, to Pogostantie and the bus stop. Time to leave for Möhkö and Susitaival trail.
A last look over my shoulder to Parppeinvaara. Goodbye and hope to see you again soon!

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